It may come as a surprise to most sports fans in Wisconsin, but the state actually has three professional basketball teams playing within its borders.
Everyone is familiar with the Milwaukee Bucks, a perennial contender in the National Basketball Association.
But to many, the La Crosse Catbirds and Wisconsin Flyers and the league in which they play, the Continental Basketball Association, are virtually unknown.
Simply put, the CBA is the minor league of the NBA.
'It's advertised as the Triple A to the NBA,' says John Utley, director of operations for the Flyers, whose home is Neenah.
'Everyone playing in the league is a professional,' says Jim Labumbard, director of publicity for the Catbirds. 'It's not an amateur league. They all have dreams of getting up in the NBA. They are pros but they play for less money and a few more hassles.'
CBA players earn about $400 to $500 a week instead of the millions of dollars commanded by some NBA stars. They play in high school or small college gyms and travel more often by bus than by airplane.
The CBA has been around in one form or the other since 1946, when it started out as the Eastern Basketball Association. The regular season runs from Dec. 4 through March 17, with the top four teams in each division advancing to the playoffs.
The league has 14 teams in two divisions including the Albany Patroons, Baltimore Lightning, Pensacola Tornadoes, Detroit Spirits and Kansas City Sizzlers.
The players are fighting for more than just a team victory -- they are fighting for a job in the high-paying, glamorous NBA.
'The competition is the best thing about it,' said Joe Merten, coach of the Flyers. 'You've got guys fighting to try and improve and get to the NBA and they play hard. Every night people come to play.'
Merten, who starred as a 6-foot-7 forward at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was picked in the 10th round of the 1981 draft by the Utah Jazz and played in the NBA summer league that year, but was cut before training camp. The Bucks then picked him up and he was their final cut before the season began.
Merten then went to the CBA, playing for several seasons and becoming coach this year. He says the level of play is good and the competition intense.
'The league has really come a long way in the last four or five years,' he said. 'Better arenas, better franchises, better travel. Everything's been upgraded.
'Traveling can be pretty hard and you play 48 games in three and a half months. It's easy to get down at some points during the season. But the guys do play hard and that's a lot of fun.'
The CBA is a mix of young players who never had a shot at the NBA, a few who caught on briefly and want another shot at the big time and even an occasional certified former star like John Drew, who currently is barred from the NBA because of alleged drug abuse.
One of the league's success stories this season is Earl Jones, a 6-foot-11 center the Bucks picked up from the Sizzlers as insurance at the backup center spot.
The Catbirds are new to Wisconsin this season, having migrated north from Louisville, Ky., where the club had to compete for fans with the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville.
In La Crosse the team has caught on big and through the first 16 home games attendance averaged 3,440, highest in the league. A promotional appearance by the Famous Chicken helped sell out the 6,100 available tickets for the game against Evansville Feb. 16.
The club is also on the line to break the league's single-season attendance record of 71,705 set last year by Tampa Bay.
'It's been fantastic,' Labumbard said of the reception the club has gotten. 'The key to this league is to move to cities such as La Crosse. There's isn't that much competition. We're not going against major college or pro teams.
'You should get into a town where people can take pride in you and relate to you. People are saying, 'Hey, this is our team''
The Catbirds are drawing fans with players like George Montgomery, a star at Illinois, and Nigel Miguel, who played at UCLA.
The Flyers moved to Neenah from Oshkosh this year to become more centrally located in the three Fox Valley area cities of Oshkosh, Neenah and Appleton. But the club is still drawing only about 900 fans a game.
The Flyers' stars include Cozell McQueen, who was on North Carolina State's NCAA championship team and was a 4th round pick by the Bucks in 1985; McKinley Singleton, who played for the Unversity of Alabama-Birmingham, and Bryan Warrick, who played three years in the NBA.
Singleton is averaging nearly 20 points a game and Warrick set a CBA assist record this season with 26 in one game.
Despite the disparity in attendance, the two teams have had similar results on the court. Through games of Feb. 12, the Catbirds were in fourth place in the Western Division with a 15-20 record, while the Flyers were in sixth place with a 14-18 mark.
Adv weekend, Feb.